Beware any ‘efficiency expert’ who swears that his or her methodology is a magic cure-all. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert warns that some business improvement zealots act like self-destructive addicts.
Never trust an ‘efficiency expert’ who believes that his or her re-engineering methodology is a divine cure-all for every conceivable workplace ailment. It doesn’t matter which efficiency-themed doctrine the expert claims to cleave to – deep down, the zealots are all the same. The ‘expert’ is consumed from within by a holy mandate to bring his or her utopian vision to life everywhere, consequences be damned. They rarely notice how disruptive, destructive or inappropriate their brutal ‘reforms’ may be. All they care about is forcibly converting the heathens to ‘correct’ thinking. They’re sometimes seem like tone-deaf missionaries, but they’re really just hardcore drunks at heart. That is, an evangelical ‘efficiency expert’ has one all-consuming passion, and will say or do anything to get their next fix.
If you think I’m overstating the case, that’s fine. Give your next expert the benefit of the doubt. Be open to change. There’s nothing at all wrong with new ways of doing business. Change can be healthy. Just keep firmly fixed in your mind that the ‘true believers’ in methodology X aren’t your friends… they’re only friendly until you rebuff their advances. Snub them, and the knives come out.
I freely admit that I’m quite cynical on the subject. I’ve danced with a bunch of these zealots over the years and don’t trust any of them. As a painful example, consider the day that one such Shiny Suit Squad of True Believers descended on my client’s building…
The setting for this story was the IT services arm of a Fortune 500 mega-corp. I was consulting to the team that was responsible for continuous process improvement. I organized projects and resources for the group’s efficiency improvement initiatives. For context, our team was the go-to group for all major systems and process changes. That’s why we were shocked one Monday morning to learn that a group of so-called ‘efficiency experts’ was in our building, meeting with our up-line executives. Supposedly, these outsiders had a mandate from headquarters to make drastic changes to our part of the business… and we hadn’t known that they were coming. Or, what they wanted.
Our section head was a trained and credentialed Six Sigma process improvement expert in his own right. He also knew more than anyone else alive about how all the tech support process elements came together. He was furious that he hadn’t been consulted about this team’s arrival. Being a loyal team player, he put on his game face and insinuated himself into the meeting. The rest of us covered his phone calls and speculated as to what the outsiders wanted. I put my money on headcount reduction. Everyone else scoffed at the notion. Reduce personnel? Nah…
Hours later, our section head limped back to is with a sour look. The few of us senior men who had stuck around past quitting time pressed him for details, curious to see which of us had guessed right. The head related that the ‘efficiency experts’ had come to our site under a corporate mandate to cut the number of trouble tickets that our support centre processed by an arbitrary fixed percentage.
The head couldn’t get the outsiders to explain why they wanted an arbitrary ticket count reduction; it didn’t make any sense. Our automated monitoring systems processed on average nearly a half million alerts each month. All of those alerts were automatically converted into trouble tickets, but there was no way that our tech support staff was going to work on them all individually. Instead, we had multiple correlation engines that reviewed incoming ticket to see which were duplicates for existing issues, that then stacked all related jobs as supplemental evidence against ‘master’ tickets. We also had filtering engines that screened out reports of issues that had been proven to be erroneous or un-actionable. Finally, there were filters in the ticketing systems that automatically closed advisory tickets that didn’t warrant human intervention. It was an amazingly well-tuned system, optimized to ensure that human engineers only ever had to investigate real issues.
Our section head had built large swathes of the solution himself, and had designed much of the machine logic that was used to make sense of all the alerts. He alone knew how all of the pieces interconnected, so naturally he told the Shiny Suit Squad that their mandate to ‘reduce ticket volume’ was a waste of time. They were… surprised, he said. His impression of their reaction was that the ‘efficiency experts’ had been expecting to be treated as saviours. His unexpected (and fierce!) resistance had taken the wind out of their sails.
Over the course of the next week, the head had to attend five more meetings with the Shiny Suit Squad to ‘discuss’ possible tactics for reducing overall ticket counts. The head brutally shot down every suggestion that the non-technical outsiders proposed with engineering logic, system design documents and deep dives directly into live production data that illustrated how our operations really worked. The outsiders limped home after reaching an impasse. The consensus among the local executives was that the ‘experts’ weren’t willing to re-engage.
They were wrong. So very, very wrong.
The Shiny Suit Squad appeared again about six weeks later with the exact same mandate and the same useless proposals. Our section head disappeared for another four days of intense ‘discussions’ while the rest of us carried on with real work. Come Friday, the head had some venomous stories to share over a round down at our team’s local. He related that the ‘experts’ didn’t seem to have learned anything from their first ignominious defeat. They demanded that our site turn over hundreds of gigabytes of raw data for ‘analysis’ so that they could dictate to us where tickets could somehow be eliminated. Our head agreed to turn over the data, but pushed back against every hare-brained suggestion that the ‘experts’ tendered regarding changing application logic.
Months passed. One of our managers wondered if the ‘efficiency experts’ were done with us. The section head sighed and let us in on a secret: company headquarters had wholeheartedly embraced ‘efficiency’ fads like Lean Manufacturing, Total Quality Management, Six-Sigma defect reduction and the like as if they were holy writ. HQ had poured massive amounts of cash into training these in-house experts. They’d even created an entire class of professional employees whose only function was to employ their esoteric skills to cut costs.
‘They’re after a headcount reduction,’ I muttered into my pint. The section head kept silent – he’d figured it out. The others scoffed, but I could tell that they were finally starting to consider the idea.
As I’d predicted the Shiny Suit Squad returned like migrating sparrows when the fiscal quarter turned. Same verse, same chorus: ‘We need to reduce overall ticket counts by 20 per cent, which will decrease your site’s overall costs. You’ll become more efficient, which will be Good For The Company!’
Our section head – the undisputed expert in the field – went off. ‘How,’ he seethed, ‘would reducing un-actionable and automatically-closed tickets change the actual labour performed? How would it cut costs?’
The way he described the scene to us afterwards was priceless. The experts (he said) all looked nervously at one another for support, unable to muster a coherent counter argument. Finally, after a long and awkward silence, the senior bloke of the squad admitted that HQ had an ulterior motive: someone at national HR had decided that our site had to cut 10 per cent of our overall payroll expenses, and he or she had set the ‘efficiency experts’ on us like a pack of hungry hounds.
The ‘experts’ had confidently declared that a ‘reduction in ticket volume’ would provide HR with the irrefutable evidence that they needed to justify the pink slips that were already writing. The ‘experts’ didn’t actually know that there was any correlation between overall ticket volume and labour costs, but that didn’t matter. Their process improvement doctrine dictated that there was always an ironclad relationship between work requests submitted and labour expended, so that was the route that they were going to take. Ticket reduction efforts always worked – regardless of context – so the tactic was guaranteed to work on us (so speaketh the Holy Handbook)… so long as we didn’t fight back.
Our section head gave the Shiny Suit Squad absolute hell over their approach, fighting back with every piece of evidence that he had. He knew their methodology as well as they did, and he had all of the site’s actual labour data at his disposal. HQ’s ‘process improvement’ initiative looked more like the aftermath of the Charge of the Light Brigade than it did a neighbourhood clean-up effort by the time the ‘ticket count reduction’ meetings finally fell apart several weeks later. 
I’d been telling my co-workers from the beginning that the Shiny Suit Squad had come for our scalps, but they didn’t believe me until the big reveal happened. Part of this came from an earnest desire to see the best in one’s fellow corporate employees. After all, our section head had been trained and certified in the methodology himself. He saw the value in it because he’d implemented it in other contexts and knew that it worked… when it was executed scientifically. That is, when the methodology was the appropriate tool to solve a specific problem. Our section head clung fervently to the belief that the ‘experts’ could be convinced through evidence and rational discourse that their initiative was constructed on a flawed premise. Surely they’d terminate their initiative once they realized that it was inappropriate for our situation. After all, the long-term needs of the company were more important than one random project’s short-term cost savings…
But, no. The members of the Shiny Suit Squad weren’t scientists or engineers. They weren’t even technologists. They were True Believers of the highest order, blind to irrelevant details like ‘facts’ or ‘logic’. They’d all risen to the company’s process improvement priesthood from other arms of the mega-corp. They knew nothing at all about our site’s business and didn’t care to learn anything about us. Instead, they descended on us like wild-eyed crusaders, bound and determined to put us heathens to the metaphorical sword, drunk with righteousness and lusting for the huge performance bonuses they were conditioned to expect from ‘leaning’ another department.
To my mind, these fools were no different from the sort of far-gone alcoholic that Ray Milland played in the classic noir film The Lost Weekend. If you haven’t seen the film (or read the book), it’s a tragic character study of a man so committed to self-destructive drug abuse that the ruins his relationships, his status in the community, and his dignity in the sloppy pursuit of short-term gratification. It doesn’t matter at all to Milland’s character how depraved his actions are or who he alienates in the pursuit of his fix so long as he secures himself one more drink.
That’s how many of the ‘efficiency experts’ I’ve met tend to act. Their drug of choice is delivered in PowerPoint slides and Excel spreadsheets instead of glass bottles, but it’s still a mind-numbing compound that impairs rational judgment. They crave the addictive rush of interrupted trend lines and short-term incentive payments. They need their next dopamine release so badly that they twist their methodology from a dispassionate tool into a sadistic scourge, indiscriminately flaying saint and sinner alike in the all-consuming pursuit of One More Change. In their madness, they come to mistake cause for effect. Left uninterrupted long enough, they always wind up leaving a trail of smouldering ruins of once-functional business units behind them.
Am I overstating the case? Mmm… no. No, I’m not. I’ve been tangling with these sorts of zealots since the days of TQM and I’ve grown to the loathe the lot of them. I don’t have any problem at all with the process improvement techniques or methodologies themselves – I enjoy productive CPI work. I only take umbrage with the extremists who take the doctrine too damned far. Process improvement is a crucial tool for supporting a business. Destructive dogma, on the other hand, in anathema to every field of human endeavour where it manifests, from religion to retail.
Rehabilitate them if you can. Purge them from the ranks if you can’t. Anyone who is willing to inflict lasting harm on others for the sake of his or her own short-term gratification constitutes an unacceptable existential threat to their organisation.
 Not that any of it mattered. HQ eventually broke our site up and fired half of the employees anyway.
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.